The Perils of Puritanism -- By: Thomas N. Smith

Journal: Reformation and Revival
Volume: RAR 05:2 (Spring 1996)
Article: The Perils of Puritanism
Author: Thomas N. Smith

The Perils of Puritanism

Thomas N. Smith

From the beginning the Puritans were an easy mark for the malicious sarcasm and satire of their opponents. Indeed, the term “Puritan” was itself, at first, a term of abuse thrown at these serious Christians because of their piety and zeal. “All who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution.” The Puritans were no exception. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries they were lampooned in print, in cartoon, in obscene verse, in pulpits, and in the polite after-dinner conversation of the gentry. Since then a whole collegium of Puritan bashers has come and gone, from Macaulay in the nineteenth century to Mencken and Hefner in our own.

The root of this abuse is twofold. First, it is grounded in the human heart that is hostile toward God and godliness, and second, in the tendency of the godly to take positions that make themselves ridiculous, not just to the world, but to other serious Christians as well. The Puritans, no more than we ourselves, could not expect to escape both of these things completely. The fact is, the more a group of sincere Christians is persecuted for serious positions, the more seriously they tend to take themselves and, thereby, open themselves to taking their positions to ridiculous extremes. There is a very fine line between a godly conscientiousness and a carnal self-consciousness, between taking God seriously (a virtue) and taking ourselves seriously (a vice). Thus, I begin with a little spiritual exercise after the Puritan model.

The Puritans tended to take everything equally seriously, as do their contemporary devotees. And therein is a grave danger and temptation, what the Puritans themselves would have called one of “Satan’s wiles” or “devices.” This temptation is to blind ourselves to our own weaknesses out of fear, pride, or self-righteousness. To fall into such a temptation is to violate one of the cardinal rules of Puritan personal

devotion: rigorous self-examination leading to self-renunciation and rededication of God as revealed in the Gospel. But, as the Apostle James reminds us: Brethren, we all stumble in many ways.”

The inability to examine and judge the Puritans (and ourselves as would-be Puritans) is all too apparent in the contemporary revival of interest in their times, their theology, and their practice. Judge for yourself. If you are prone to the temptation I have indicated, then it is likely that you have read the title to this article with something less than perfect objectivity and detachment. It is even possible that your seeing my title and reading my words have caused your pulse to increase. You may even feel it necessary to write to me or th...

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